Youth mental health crisis: Do healthcare workers need more training?
Thursday, 31st October 2019 at 7:15 am
Year on year, Australian youth are reporting increasing levels of psychological distress. Do healthcare professionals need more training to help tackle this crisis?
Mental health concerns among Australian youth have risen sharply over the past seven years, according to new research.
The Can We Talk? report, released by Mission Australia and the Black Dog Institute, is the largest survey of its kind, profiling 28,286 Australian teenagers aged 15 to 19 from 2012 to 2018.
Almost one in four respondents reported they experienced psychological distress in 2018 – a 5.5 per cent increase since the survey began.
Dr Paul Badcock, senior lecturer at the Centre for Youth Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, says this rise is concerning.
“Strategies to prevent youth self-harm, suicide and rates of depression don’t seem to be working enormously well – because rates continue to go up,” Dr Badcock says.
He says that while there is evidence to show increased mental health awareness and initiatives such as headspace are having a positive impact, more focus needs to be on ensuring the healthcare workforce has the skillset needed to meet the mental health needs of young people.
“Given that between the ages of 12 to 25 is really the peak period of onset of mental illness, there is a real need to understand the unique needs of young people,” he says.
Dr Badcock says that to deliver age-appropriate care, healthcare professionals require knowledge of the latest evidence and a particular skillset.
“You need an understanding of youth development and the particular risk factors of mental ill health that young people are particularly vulnerable to – one example of that is social media,” he says.
“A lot of young people are suspicious about or reticent to engage with health workers, but there are certain strategies and techniques you can use with young people in a therapeutic context, which are essential for developing a strong, effective therapeutic relationship.”
The postgraduate programs Dr Badcock coordinates at the University of Melbourne are designed to strengthen the mental health workforce to ensure health professionals are properly equipped to work with young people.
The courses are delivered online – designed to be accessible to those based in regional and rural areas.
“Young people from rural and remote areas have their own unique needs and oftentimes don’t have access to community programs or broader networks or mental health services,” Dr Badcock says.
“One of our mandates is to make our courses as accessible as possible for mental health workers in rural and remote areas in order for them to meet the needs of young people in those areas.”
Ian Johansen is manager of the headspace centre in Swan Hill, four hours north of Melbourne.
He completed his Graduate Certificate in Youth Mental Health in 2015 and is now on track to complete his Master of Youth Mental Health.
Starting out as a youth worker at a rural school, Johansen has now been working with young people for over two decades.
He decided to enrol in the youth mental health program to ensure his knowledge was up to date.
“Already working in the field, I wanted to ensure my knowledge is drawing on the best evidence available around delivering support to young people with mental health challenges,” he says.
“Particularly working in the headspace context, the course has aligned very much with the work that I’m already doing. It has been helpful to advance my thinking in tasks and roles that I have day to day – it’s very applicable to the current workforce environment.”
Johansen works with a team of 17 staff at Swan Hill headspace, including youth workers, general practitioners, psychologists and mental health social workers.
“I feel that equipping myself with this training means that I can lead the team with confidence,” Johansen says.
He believes that youth mental health workers need a specific set of skills and knowledge.
“It requires people with skills to make young people feel at ease,” he says.
“Because young people generally will not be persistent in seeking help, unless supports are really tailored to meet their needs.”
Working in a rural area brings extra challenges but Johansen says studying the program remotely has been beneficial and has allowed him to continue working.
“I’m in the bush – we don’t have a campus of the University of Melbourne here, but it means that I can tap into the best of what the university has to offer in terms of the knowledge and the expertise of the faculty, and the other faculties from other universities that they bring in to provide teaching content – all from my home town,” he says.
The Mission Australia report found increasing access to support services is key to addressing the concerning statistics.
Increased training could help address the workforce shortage, particularly in regional areas, and ensure that health professionals have the skills they need.
Dr Badcock agrees: “Upskilling in terms of the most evidence-based treatment approaches for a younger cohort is essential to working with them.”
The University of Melbourne has postgraduate programs in Youth Mental Health and Managing Youth Self-Harm and Suicide. Courses are developed in partnership with Orygen, a world-leading youth mental health research organisation.
Find out more about Youth Mental Health
Find out more about Managing Youth Self-Harm and Suicide